Could Open Research benefit Cambridge University researchers?

This blog is part of the recent series about Open Research and reports on a discussion with Cambridge researchers  held on 8 June 2016 in the Department of Engineering. Extended notes from the meeting and slides are available at the Cambridge University Research Repository. This report is written by  Lauren Cadwallader, Joanna Jasiewicz and Marta Teperek (listed alphabetically by surname).

At the Office of Scholarly Communication we have been thinking for a while about Open Research ideas and about moving beyond mere compliance with funders’ policies on Open Access and research data sharing. We thought that the time has come to ask our researchers what they thought about opening up the research process and sharing more: not only publications and research data, but also protocols, methods, source code, theses and all the other elements of research. Would they consider this beneficial?

Working together with researchers – democratic approach to problem-solving

To get an initial idea of the expectations of the research community in Cambridge, we organised an open discussion hosted at the Department of Engineering. Anyone registering was asked three questions:

  • What frustrates you about the research process as it is?
  • Could you propose a solution that could solve that problem?
  • Would you be willing to speak about your ideas publicly?

20160608_163000Interestingly, around fifty people registered to take part in the discussion and almost all of them contributed very thought-provoking problems and appealing solutions. To our surprise, half of the people expressed their will to speak publicly about their ideas. This shaped our discussion on the day.

So what do researchers think about Open Research? Not surprisingly, we started from an animated discussion about unfair reward systems in academia.

Flawed metrics

A well-worn complaint: the only thing that counts in academia is publication in a high impact journal. As a result, early career researchers have no motivation to share their data and to publish their work in open access journals, which can sometimes have lower impact factors. Additionally, metrics based on the whole journal do not reflect the importance of the research described: what is needed is article-level impact measurements. But it is difficult to solve this systemic problem because any new journal which wishes to introduce a new metrics system has no journal-level impact factor to start with, and therefore researchers do not want to publish in it.

Reproducibility crisis: where quantity, not quality, matters

Researchers also complained that the volume of produced research is higher and higher in terms of quantity and science seems to have entered an ‘era of quantity’. They raised the concern that the quantity matters more than the quality of research. Only the fast and loud research gets rewarded (because it is published in high impact factor journals), and the slow and careful seems to be valued less. Additionally, researchers are under pressure to publish and they often report what they want to see, and not what the data really shows. This approach has led to the reproducibility crisis and lack of trust among researchers.

Funders should promote and reward reproducible research

The participants had some good ideas for how to solve these problems. One of the most compelling suggestions was that perhaps funding should go not only to novel research (as it seems to be at the moment), but also to people who want to reproduce existing research. Additionally, reproducible research itself should be rewarded. Funders could offer grant renewal schemes for researchers whose research is reproducible.

Institutions should hire academics committed to open research

Another suggestion was to incentivise reward systems other than journal impact factor metrics. Someone proposed that institutions should not only teach the next generation of researchers how to do reproducible research, but also embed reproducibility of research as an employment criteria. Commitment to Open Research could be an essential requirement in job description. Applicants could be asked at the recruitment stage how they achieve the goals of Open Research. LMU University in Munich had recently included such a statement in a job description for a professor of social psychology (see the original job description here and a commentary here).

Academia feeding money to exploitative publishers

Researchers were also frustrated by exploitative publishers. The big four publishers (Elsevier, Wiley, Springer and Informa) have a typical annual profit margin of 37%. Articles are donated to the publishers for free by the academics, and reviewed by other academics, also free of charge. Additionally, noted one of the participants, academics also act as journal editors, which they also do for free.

[*A comment about this statement was made on 15 August 2017 noting that some editors do get paid. While the participant’s comment stands as a record of what was said, we acknowledge that this is not an entirely accurate statement.]

In addition to this, publishers take away the copyright from the authors. As a possible solution to the latter, someone suggested that universities should adopt institutional licences on scholarly publishing (similar to the Harvard licence) which could protect the rights of their authors

Pre-print services – the future of publishing?

Could Open Research aid the publishing crisis? Novel and more open ways of publishing can certainly add value to the process. The researchers discussed the benefits of sharing pre-print papers on platforms like arXiv and bioRxiv. These services allow people to share manuscripts before publication (or acceptance by a journal). In physics, maths and computational sciences it is common to upload manuscripts even before submitting the manuscript to a journal in order to get feedback from the community and have the chance to improve the manuscript.

bioRxiv, the life sciences equivalent of arXiv, started relatively recently. One of our researchers mentioned that he was initially worried that uploading manuscripts into bioRxiv might jeopardise his career as a young researcher. However, he then saw a pre-print manuscript describing research similar to his published on bioRxiv. He was shocked when he saw how the community helped to change that manuscript and to improve it. He has since shared a lot of his manuscripts on bioRxiv and as his colleague pointed out, this has ‘never hurt him’. To the contrary, he suggested that using pre-print services promotes one’s research: it allows the author to get the work into the community very early and to get feedback. And peers will always value good quality research and the value and recognition among colleagues will come back to the author and pay back eventually.

Additionally, someone from the audience suggested that publishing work in pre-print services provides a time-stamp for researchers and helps to ensure that ideas will not be scooped by anyone – researchers are free to share their research whenever they wish and as fast they wish.

Publishers should invest money in improving science – wishful thinking?

It was also proposed that instead of exploiting academics, publishers could play an important role in improving the research process. One participant proposed a couple of simple mechanisms that could be implemented by publishers to improve the quality of research data shared:

  • Employment of in-house data experts: bioinfomaticians or data scientists, who could judge whether supporting data is of a good enough quality
  • Ensure that there is at least one bioinfomatician/data scientist on the reviewing panel for a paper
  • Ask for the data to be deposited in a public, discipline-specific repository, which would ensure quality control of the data and adherence to data standards.
  • Ask for the source code and detailed methods to be made available as well.

Quick win: minimum requirements for making shared data useful

A requirement that, as a minimum, three key elements should be made available with publications – the raw data, the source code and the methods – seems to be a quick win solution to make research data more re-usable. Raw data is necessary as it allows users to check if the data is of a good quality overall, while publishing code is important to re-run the analysis and methods need to be detailed enough to allow other researchers to understand all the processes involved in data processing. An excellent case study example comes from Daniel MacArthur who has described how to reproduce all the figures in his paper and has shared the supporting code as well.

It was also suggested that the Office of Scholarly Communication could implement some simple quality control measures to ensure that research data supporting publications is shared. As a minimum the Office could check the following:

  • Is there a data statement in the publication?
  • If there is a statement – is there a link to the data?
  • Does the link work?

This is definitely a very useful suggestion from our research community and in fact we have already taken this feedback aboard and started checking for data citations in Cambridge publications.

Shortage of skills: effective data sharing is not easy

The discussion about the importance of data sharing led to reflections that effective data sharing is not always easy. A bioinformatician complained that datasets that she had tried to re-use did not satisfy the criteria of reproducibility, nor re-usability. Most of the time there was not enough metadata available to successfully use the data. There is some data shared, there is the publication, but the description is insufficient to understand the whole research process: the miracle, or the big discovery, happens somewhere in the middle.

Open Research in practice: training required

Attendees agreed that it requires effort and skills to make research open, re-usable and discoverable by others. More training is needed to ensure that researchers are equipped with skills to allow them to properly use the internet to disseminate their research, as well as with skills allowing them to effectively manage their research data. It is clear that discipline-specific training and guidance around how to manage research data effectively and how to practise open research is desired by Cambridge researchers.

Nudging researchers towards better data management practice

Many researchers have heard or experienced first-hand horror stories of having to follow up on somebody else’s project, where it was not possible to make any sense of the research data due to lack of documentation and processes. This leads to a lot of time wasted in every research group. Research data need to be properly documented and maintained to ensure research integrity and research continuity. One easy solution is to nudge researchers towards better research data management practice could be formalised data management requirements. Perhaps as a minimum, every researchers should have a lab book to document research procedures.

The time is now: stop hypocrisy

Finally, there was a suggestion that everyone should take the lead in encouraging Open Research. The simplest way to start is to stop being what has been described as a hypocrite and submit articles to journals which are fully Open Access. This should be accompanied by making one’s reviews openly available whenever possible. All publications should be accompanied by supporting research data and researchers should ensure that they evaluate individual research papers and that their judgement is not biased by the impact factor of the journal.

Need for greater awareness and interest in publishing

One of the Open Access advocates present at the meeting stated that most researchers are completely unaware of who are the exploitative and ethical publishers and the differences between them. Researchers typically do not directly pay the exploitative publishers and are therefore not interested in looking at the bigger picture of sustainability of scholarly publishing. This is clearly an area when more training and advocacy can help and the Office of Scholarly Communication is actively involved in raising awareness in Open Access. However, while it is nice to preach in a room of converts, how do we get other researchers involved in Open Access? How should we reach out to those who can’t be bothered to come to a discussion like the one we had? This is the area where anyone who understands the benefits Open Access has a job to do.

Next steps

We are extremely grateful to everyone who came to the event and shared their frustrations and ideas on how to solve some problems. We noted all the ideas on post it notes – the number of notes at the end of the discussion was impressive, an indication of how creative the participants were in just 90 minutes. It was a very productive meeting and we wish to thank all the participants for their time and effort.


We think that by acting collaboratively and supporting good ideas we can achieve a lot. As an inspiration, McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (the Neuro) in Canada have recently adopted a policy on Open Research: over the next five years all results, publications and data will be free to access by everyone.

Follow up

If you would like to host similar discussions directly in your departments/institutes, please get in touch with us at – we would be delighted to come over and hear from researchers in your discipline.

In the meantime, if you have any additional ideas that you wish to contribute, please send them to us. Everyone who is interested in being informed about the progress here is encouraged to sign up for a mailing distribution list here.

Extended notes from the meeting and slides are available at the Cambridge University Research Repository. We are particularly grateful to Avazeh Ghanbarian, Corina Logan, Ralitsa Madsen, Jenny Molloy, Ross Mounce and Alasdair Russell (listed alphabetically by surname) for agreeing to publicly speak at the event.

Published 3 August 2016
Written by Lauren Cadwallader, Joanna Jasiewicz and Marta Teperek
Creative Commons License

4 thoughts on “Could Open Research benefit Cambridge University researchers?

  1. Article level metrics are already available – it’s relatively easy to obtain the number of article views, downloads, shares and mentions (from sources such as Web of Science, Scopus, SciVal , Altmetric, Impact Story etc).

    It’s also worth noting that the Impact Factor isn’t necessarily a ‘bad’ metric in itself, it’s just often used in the wrong context or to try and measure things it was never designed for (ie the performance of people rather than journals).

    The challenge isn’t the metrics themselves, but to educate people how to use them responsibly.

    1. Thanks for your comment. The issue is not that alternative metrics are not available, it is the systemic use of the Impact Factor. There are many examples of researchers being told that their University strategy is to only publish in journals with a JIF over X. Educating people, you are correct, is the key but that is a very big job because entire academic eco-systems are currently predicated on the JIF.

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